S! All!

This is not a nay-sayer post calling for the end of the world. I don't believe that the sky is falling or that there will never be another flight simulator. I do however believe that the flight simulator market is struggling, and further I believe that most of the problems are entirely the fault of the flight sim community.

So what is the problem?

Most would say that the problem is that there are not enough people interested in propeller-based combat flight simulations. I disagree. Certainly this is a problem, but it is a problem that I believe is caused by another, underlying problem: I believe we have allowed our egos to get in the way of practicality and made our genre inaccessible to many new potential players.

What is the goal of a simulation? That's easy - right? The goal of a simulation is to make something as close to real as possible; to simulate the real thing. So why is it that whenever we read an interview with real pilots flying modern flight simulators (like Forgotten Battles) they all say that the simulator is harder than real life? Think about that for a minute before you read any further. Is it really our goal to have simulators that are harder than the real thing? Is that what simulators should do? What does that do to the sellability of flight simulators? Flight simulations have a reputation for being too hard. Part of that is because flying aircraft in combat is hard, but we are not doing ourselves any favors by making it even harder in the games than it is in real life.

If our goal is to make ourselves look better by making a game that is harder than the real thing, then we are succeeding. This however also makes it darn near impossible for new players to get involved in our hobby. Yeah - they can 'turn off' realism settings, but that goes against the instincts of a flight sim hobbyist. The Quake crowd might like god mode, but the flight sim crowd does not. People who fly simulators want a realistic simulator and thus want to fly with the realism cranked all the way over. If that makes the game too hard, most players will shelve the game rather than fiddle with realism settings. The hardest settings in a game should reflect the closest settings to real flight. There should be NO settings that make a game even harder than the real thing. And joystick settings? Why would a new pilot want to fiddle with joystick settings? And you need different joystick settings with each plane??? Come on now! That will work for those of us who have been flying sims for years, but a new pilot will stall a couple of times and then buy Doom 3.

If the flight simulation world wants to survive, we need to re-prioritize our expectations back to what they used to be. More realistic = better. When harder = less realistic, then harder is bad.

What would a more realistic flight simulator be like? Well, it would be easier to fly than contemporary sims (like Forgotten Battles). That would make it more accessible to newer players. It would also make us focus on the dynamics of the dogfight rather than the dynamics of the game. Believe me when I tell you that when you fly a well modeled flight sim against another good pilot, you won't think it is easy. But you WILL have to focus on the dynamics of the FIGHT rather than just the dynamics of the game.

And let us talk for a moment about plane performance. As long as the developer makes a realistic effort how about we give them a break? How much development time goes into trying to make every plane fly absolutely perfect according to historical statistics? And what does that get us? Even if we could agree on statistics, historical matchups are usually biased in favor of one side or the other. I for one would rather have great matchups even if they are not entirely historically accurate. I want it historically close, but I like to see a developer keep things even. I like different planes with different capabilities, but I also like a real chance to win if I fly my plane within its most favored flight techniques. I dont give a rip whether or not my 109 is 2 MPH faster or slower than in real life. I only care how it matches up against its contemporaries. Is it close? Do I have a good matchup? Thats good enough for me.

When we force developers to spend more time fiddling with individual plane performance statistics than with any other part of the game, we are also forcing them to increase their development costs. Our drive for harder and harder sims with more and more historical accuracy is making flight sims more difficult to sell and at the same time more expensive to create. This in turn makes flight simulations less profitable. Now we are facing a world where nobody wants to make a flight sim. We want to blame the developers, but really we ought to blame ourselves. This is entirely our fault.

So what is the solution? The first part is realistic expectations. It was stupid of us to keep demanding that flight simulations get harder even after they caught-up with the difficulty of real flight. Now we need to ask that the difficulty be scaled-back to make a more realistic experience. Im not going to get into a debate about what specific settings that means. Rather I am going to say that we need to change the whole rationale used for realism settings. It is also stupid for us to argue with developers over and over again about the flight characteristics of different planes. Are they close? Do they matchup well against one another? If so, then good enough!!

The second thing we need to do is tell the game publishers we are willing to pay more for quality flight simulators than for other games. Game developers dont care about sales quantities as much as they care about sales dollars. If they get more money for each copy, then they dont need to sell as many copies. We can create more demand just by paying more. How much more? I dont know the answer to that. I know that I would be willing to pay $150 for a good flight simulation. That doesnt mean $150 is the right number though. New players might not be willing to pay that much. But let the marketing people figure that out. We just need to make sure the game publishers understand that we are willing to pay more for quality. We are not the Quake crowd. The economic model they use for Quake games does not apply. They need to use a different economic model to make flight simulations profitable.

Third, the developers need to cut development costs. There are a number of open-source flight simulation engines out there. Some of these engines are quite advanced. Why not use one? As long as you dont use the open-source engine in such a way that it makes your product a derivative work, you dont have to open your code. That may take some fancy marketing. Maybe you have a free game with one plane for each side and one map (representing the open source part) and then you have a $100 package (or whatever the cost is) with the rest? Maybe you give out the SP game for free and then sell the multi-player part. My point is that the developers dont need to keep re-inventing the wheel. They can all use the SAME basic flight model. By using open-source pieces game companies would be able to make great games at minimal expense and with maximum profit. Everyone wins.

I think that covers it! It IS possible to make and sell a great flight simulation. It IS possible to make money doing it. It may not be easy to do, but few things worth doing are easy. And doing this will take some work from both the consumer-base (which in our case has become down-right anal) as well as the developer side.

Thoughts?